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New Al Jazeera documentary exposes influence of anti-Muslim groups in the Trump era

In its newly-released investigation, “Islamophobia Inc.,” Al Jazeera examines the purveyors of anti-Muslim hate in the U.S. and the funders bankrolling this movement.

For over a year, Al Jazeera’s investigative unit mapped out various anti-Muslim group’s influence on mainstream audiences and civic institutions. The documentary also takes an in-depth look at times when anti-Muslim animus led to actual violence. 

Many of the groups highlighted in the film are designated as anti-Muslim hate groups by the Southern Poverty Law Center. Some of the prominent groups profiled by Al Jazeera are ACT for AmericaCenter for Security Policy, Pamela Geller’s American Freedom Defense Initiative and Robert Spencer’s Jihad Watch

The film looks at the conspiracy theories and anti-Muslim rhetoric pumped out daily by these groups via social media platforms and their individual websites. “This investigation has discovered the simple but effective tactics these groups use to instigate a fear of Islam,” states the narrator.

One major topic covered in the film is how the “Islamophobia industry” stokes fear of Islamic or sharia law in order to whip up fear that Muslims are a threat to the U.S.

“Repetition of message is what these groups survive with, that’s what they need to make sure that people identify sharia as being an inherently malevolent force and a threat to American way of life,” notes Eli Clifton, a fellow at the Nation Institute.

Al Jazeera found that Frank Gaffney, ACT for America, Pamela Geller and Robert Spencer used the term “sharia” on Twitter nearly 2,000 times in one year. 

Another concept covered by Al Jazeera is the conspiracy theory about the Muslim Brotherhood, a foreign political entity that anti-Muslim groups claim has infiltrated the U.S. and is working to overthrow it from within. 

Al Jazeera reported that Islamophobia is a “multi-million-dollar industry.” The film examines the tens of millions of dollars of dark money that funds anti-Muslim causes. Most of this money is funneled to these groups anonymously through donor-advised foundations. Some of the foundations the film shines a spotlight on include Donors Capital Fund, the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation and the Sarah Scaife Foundation  

“There’s probably tens of millions of dollars sloshing around, if not a hundred million every year in budgets that they operate with,” says Clifton. In its 2011 report “Fear, Inc.,” the Center for American Progress found that seven charitable foundations had funneled $42.6 million to anti-Muslim groups between 2001 and 2009.

Anti-Muslim groups are not solely operating online and have been able been able to turn activists out to rallies in support of their cause, as shown in the film. 

“Their purpose is really to take hold of the Internet and use the Internet as a space to organize people for mass protests that then eventuates in physical forms of activism,” Nathan Lean, author of The Islamophobia Industry, told Al Jazeera. 

A lot of the footage in the film is from ACT for America’s nationwide “March Against Sharia,” which took place in 28 cities across the U.S. on June 10, 2017. The rallies not only brought out ACT’s anti-Muslim agitating base, but also drew all sorts of figures from the radical right including white nationalists, neo-Nazis, and anti-government militias. 

Elsewhere in the film, Al Jazeera looks at violence committed by those who hold anti-Muslim views. One being the case of Anthony Sawina, who was convicted of attempted murder after he shot at and wounded three young Somali men in their car in Dinkytown, Minnesota. “The judge cited Islamophobia as a motive for the shooting,” the film states.

Sawina had no known ties to established anti-Muslim groups. However, his anti-Muslim views did not exist in a vacuum either. 

“I think the link is fairly direct, honestly,” Rep. Keith Ellison says in the film. “Now, I’m not saying that Brigitte Gabriel or Frank Gaffney has attacked a Muslim. But what I mean is, they gin up this anti-Muslim hate machine and it spurs on other people who do have violent impulses.”

“Other than them being Muslim, would there be another reason why he would shoot them?” adds Jaylahni Hussein, executive director of the Minnesota chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations.

However, Al Jazeera notes: “A direct link between rhetoric and violence is hard to prove, but there has been a rise in anti-Muslim incidents since 2009, the year the Islamophobia industry emerged as a popular movement.”

Anti-Muslim hate crimes have been on the rise in the U.S. over the past three years, with a 19 percent increase between 2015 and 2016. A January 2018 report from the non-profit South Asians Americans Leading Together (SAALT) documented 302 hate-related incidents against South Asian, Muslim, Sikh, Hindu, Middle Eastern and Arab communities following Trump’s election. 

Al Jazeera’s investigation also looked into the bombing of a mosque in Bloomington, Minnesota. The film features chilling footage of inside the Islamic center when the bomb exploded. In March, three Illinois men were arrested in connection to the bombing and are currently awaiting trial. The alleged assailants were reportedly part of a anti-government militia group known as the “White Rabbits Three Percent Illinois Patriot Freedom Fighters.”

The attack received no condemnation from President Donald Trump. Instead, then-advisor Sebastian Gorka, known for his own anti-Muslim track record, appeared on MSNBC claiming the bombing was a potential hoax. 

Footage obtained by Al Jazeera reveals further evidence that prominent individuals in the anti-Muslim movement have been in contact with the Trump administration. Al Jazeera’s investigative team dispatched an undercover reporter to a law enforcement training in Maricopa County, Arizona conducted by John Guandolo, a disgraced former FBI agent who now runs the anti-Muslim group Understanding the Threat. Guandolo travels the country giving “training” seminars to law enforcement and civilians alike. His presentations, however, are steeped in anti-Muslim conspiracy theories and other problematic rhetoric.

Al Jazeera was able to catch Guandolo on video saying he had been in contact with U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions before and after Trump was elected. “I was speaking three or four times a week with Jeff Sessions. Up to the election and after the election, before the inauguration,” Guandolo told Al Jazeera’s undercover reporter.

Al Jazeera was also able to reveal some of the inflammatory material Guandolo is teaching law enforcement, such as that Muslim Student Associations on college campuses are recruiting members to “jihad.” Guandolo regularly claims jihad is only about a religious war rather than one’s personal struggles. 

“That is ridiculous,” said Rick Schwein, a former counterterrorism agent with the FBI, after he was shown Guandolo’s training.

During the presentation, Guandolo told officers they have probable cause to open investigations of Muslim civil rights and advocacy organizations like the Council on American-Islamic Relations because they are supposed

“So, your probable cause already exists to open up an investigation on CAIR Arizona right now,” he said during the Maricopa training. 

“This is just a rhetoric of fear," Schwein added. "These organizations have a right to exist, they're a part of America's fabric.”

Additional footage of Guandolo’s Maricopa County training viewed by Buzzfeed revealed he accused former President Barack Obama of “treason” for working with Muslim civil rights and advocacy groups. Buzzfeed also reported that Guandolo is skeptical about whether systemic racism still existed in the U.S. 

“This stuff is toxic, he’s a poison salesman,” Rep. Ellison said of Guandolo in the film. “You don’t want a law enforcement community infected with these hateful ideas because they do have the power to deploy deadly force.”   

Al Jazeera confirmed some speculations about what Guandolo is teaching law enforcement. In a flyer for a 2017 training held in Glendale, Arizona, Guandolo states he would cover the “detailed threat from the Islamic Movement for the local community in which the presenters are teaching” and that “local organizations and leaders are identified by name and their activities detailed.” 

Guandolo’s bigotry continues to catch with him and he has faced a slew of setbacks so far in 2018. In April, his Midwest speaking tour imploded after all but one of  the five venues canceled on him. Earlier this week, after concerns were expressed by from civil rights groups including the Muslim Advocates and the Southern Poverty Law Center, the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement announced it would be rescinding accreditation for a seminar hosted by Guandolo in San Angelo, Texas that was open to local officers. 

Al Jazeera’s “Islamophobia Inc.” is a timely investigation examining the organized and well-funded anti-Muslim movement and the challenges it poses to a just and inclusive society.    

As Dalia Mogahed, Director of Research at the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding, told Al Jazeera: “Fear does terrible things to democracy. Fear kills freedom.”

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